Pushing The Limits On Nanotechnology
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May 23, 2001
By Gary Lindsey
PASADENA, CALIF. - Computer chips today are small and getting smaller.
They're the reason devices like personal computers and cell phones keep
shrinking. But the limits of current technology might be just over the
horizon, according to some experts.
"We're reaching the point where we can no longer extend the
microelectronics technologies we've developed," says Barbara Wilson, chief
technologist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The
current estimate is we have about 10 to 15 years, after which time unless we
figure out how to work in the nanotechnology region you're not going to get
a computer that's going to be any better than the one you had last year."
A new system at JPL is pushing the limit on what's possible right down
to the molecular level. For example, a document containing thousands of
names can now be shrunk to fit on the point of a pin.
'We Have To Make Everything Small'
NASA has a particular interest in nanotechnology given the high costs
in putting conventional spacecraft into orbit or beyond.
"If you think about the fact that it costs $1 million or so to put a
kilogram package on the surface of Mars you can recognize how precious every
gram is that we send out there," says Wilson. "We have to make everything
small. We have to put a whole laboratory on a chip essentially."
Wilson says that nanotechnology could also become important in keeping
space travelers healthy -- for instance, during a three-year trip to Mars.
"On an extended space voyage, you can't abort and go to a hospital,"
says Wilson. "You're stuck out there, sort of like some of the examples
we've had in the Antarctic recently. When we look into the future what we
hope is to do is have microscopic diagnostics right inside your system
because these things can be small enough to be totally not interfering with
the rest of your biological system."
What does this mean to the rest of us? It's hoped that those
microscopic devices could detect and destroy harmful micro-organisms before
they cause illness. But until then, nanotechnology has a lot of growing up
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